The Silence Is Deafening

Earlier this month, British-Bangladeshi film-maker Leesa Gazi released her award winning documentary feature ‘Rising Silence’ to the British public. The documentary tracks the story of four sisters who were abducted during the 1971 war in which East Pakistan broke with West Pakistan to become Bangladesh. During the nine-month war of independence, according to the source, between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women and girls were raped and tortured by the Pakistan Army and pro-Pakistan militias. Even in the hope that the figure is closer to 200,000, the 1971 war is proof that rape is used as an instrument of terror and is a crime against humanity.

After the war and the subsequent release of the women and girls, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “the father of the Bengali nation,” awarded the women the title of “Birangona,” the brave or courageous heroines. While the title may appear to honour the women who suffered this abuse, the cruel reality is one of further ostracisation from their community and country. The title was an attempt by the new government to persuade families to accept the women back into the family unit. Bangladesh remains a conservative and patriarchal society, whereby the rape of a female family-member brings the family disgrace and shame. Uncovering the much forgotten and under-reported story of the Birangona women, film-maker Gazi has noted, “we could dismiss their accounts as isolated incidents of a forgotten war in a distant land, committed nearly 50 years ago.” However, as Gazi has astutely reminded her audience, “The problem is that the same pattern of sexual violence and rape in armed conflicts continues to be used today.” Children born from the rape of the Bangladeshi women and girls are now approaching their 50th birthday. This group of stigmatised women, and resulting children, have only been replaced with a new class, as a consequence of the mass rape of the Rohingya women.

For decades, the Myanmar Armed Forces, or more specifically the Tatmadaw, have used sexual violence as a weapon of war. Their targets have been the minority ethnic groups living in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya Muslim women. A escalation in August 2017 resulted in more than 700,000 people leaving their homes to find refuge elsewhere. More traumatic, the systematic campaign of rape by the Tatmadaw has led Pramila Patten, a United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, to deem it “a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.” One particular story recounted by New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman was deeply horrifying. In the village of Tula Toli, in the Muslim Rakhine region, the soldiers clubbed a Rohingya woman named Rajuma in the face before tearing her screaming child from her arms and throwing him into a fire. “They threw my baby into a fire – they just flung him,” she said. Rajuma was then taken into a house and gang-raped. In a single day, she was raped and lost her son, her mother, her younger brother as well as her two younger sisters who were first raped before being shot.

Her story of rape, imprisonment and torture is not unique. These women are made to suffer two-fold: the humiliation and pain of being sexually assaulted is only followed by a lifetime of isolation and stigmatisation. In traditional Rohingya Muslim society, being raped leads to ignominy to the family. Like their Bangladeshi counterparts, many Rohingya women and girls fall pregnant. Gossip then ensues when the women and girls give birth to children with an unnaturally pale complexion. Yet, the women experience further trauma. It has been well-recorded that in the uncertain and stressful state of refugee life, domestic violence in camps is common. The Rohingya people are no exception.

It is not hard to see the parallels between the Bangladeshi and Rohingya women. Their story is unfortunately a shared experience. Women in armed conflicts are more than often the first to be affected and the last to be heard and listened to. As film-maker Gazi argues, if we ignore or dismiss sexual violence in armed conflicts, then it will never stop.